For so many players in the past 30-plus years, he was the father to their styles. He brought the improvised creativity from the South Philadelphia playgrounds to the rigidity of the college and pro game. He was part of the “Rolls Royce backcourt” that was known for its flair on the hardwood and its style through the streets of the early '70s New York. And yes, he was the inspiration to one of the greatest fictional names in sports film history.
Earl Monroe’s much-anticipated autobiography, “Earl the Pearl: My Story,” hit bookshelves this week, and the timing could have not been better. To end the regular season last Wednesday, the Knicks celebrated the 1973 NBA championship team in front of their home crowd, and for the player who once couldn’t have envisioned playing for “the enemy,” the night was certainly a reminder of how much he truly belonged in orange and blue.
Yet, that wasn’t the only reason for the timeliness of the book’s release. These current Knicks may not invoke images of the iconic '70s teams, but in reading “My Story,” you’re reminded of the battles within that take place during the playoffs. As someone who played in three consecutive NBA Finals with both the Knicks (’72 and ’73) and Baltimore Bullets (’71), Monroe’s recall of those runs just might parallel park themselves to what’s taking place in this postseason.
For those who grew up watching Monroe dazzle the masses, the book will unquestionably bring you back to his playing days, yet, he shares much more on how "Black Jesus" came to be on the streets of South Philadelphia. For those of us who knew of the legend long after his final game, it’s as if he’s telling his tale for the very first time, which could explain why he felt the need to do the talking himself (with the help of Miles Davis autobiographer Quincy Troupe).
"People know of me but don't really know me. This was my chance to share my story the way I knew it really happened," Monroe expressed to TSFJ.
Monroe is as frank about his personal life as he is of his professional one. He was a ladies’ man, for sure, to the point that he’s open about fathering children with different women in his younger days. He talks about rebuilding his relationship with his absentee father while in college, dealing with the passing of his mother during the 1972-73 season, and even how he had to adjust to new teammates on and off the court when he was traded to New York.
What was also interesting was that interspersed between his reflections on his developing game was his evolving social conscious. Monroe, like many of our elders, came of age in rather turbulent times in America as the civil rights movement began to reshape the nation. Yet, as we have come to understand over time, entertainers – whether they were musicians, actors and actresses, or athletes – played a significant role in cultivating and supporting the movement through their work.
“I told the stories in the context of how they happened. Sometimes race was mixed in; sometimes it wasn't,” Monroe told TSFJ. “That was the time we were in, and growing up in my neighborhood in Philly, I had friends and teammates who were black and white.”
He certainly had the fans as well, and his transcendent style of play excited white fans, even out of the famed HBCU Winston-Salem Teachers College (now, Winston-Salem State University). Case in point was when he looked back at his senior season in chapter 10:
“People just loved to see us play, especially in North Carolina, and some people started saying that our team, with me as its star, was beginning to integrate the state. That was something, but there were a lot more white people at our games. So many, in fact, that they would take up the section of seats reserved for our students close to the floor. They were white and thought of themselves as being privileged. So they would come in and sit down in those seats because they were some of the best seats in the facility. And I remember one time (College Basketball Hall of Fame) Coach (Clarence “Big House”) Gaines saw them doing this and made them move, telling the crowd that the seats they were sitting in were reserved for Winston-Salem students, so they had to get up and move, and they did.
“But the fans, black and white, started asking me for my autograph after every game, because I had gotten so famous now in North Carolina …”
Not all of the racial interactions were positive as he revealed a few incidents that displayed the sinister side of the bigoted. He discussed being left off the 1967 Pan American Games roster because one of the coaches thought his game was “too street, too playground, too black” for his tastes. However, considering how far his talents took him in life, Monroe embraced his stardom for what it provided for the game of basketball.
"I wanted to be the best possible person I could be,” he said. “I wanted to change the game and make an impact with the way I played, and I think that's reflective of the game today and the way it is played by everyone, not just black or white."
Monroe also delves into being on both sides of the overlooked Baltimore Bullets/New York Knicks rivalry — first as part of the Baltimore team that always came up short in ’69 and ’70, then as part of the Bullets team that edged by the Knicks to reach the ’71 Finals, and finally as a member of the Knicks after refusing to return with the Charm City franchise.
“Earl the Pearl: My Story” doesn’t just provide a look back, but in its epilogue, a look at right here and now. He spends the final section of his autobiography discussing his concerns and appreciation for the current state of the NBA. Some of his thoughts may not exactly be new – though his revelation of almost being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers to guide some guy named Magic Johnson was eye-opening – but they come from someone who helped reshape the NBA as we know it.
Buy Earl Monroe's first book, "Earl the Pearl: My Story" from Rodale Books now for tablet or hardcover reading.
Jason is the editor-in-chief here at TSFJ. In addition to a past life as a research analyst in advertising, television and online media, he spent seven seasons as the New York Beacon's beat writer for the New York Giants. Jason has written for Yardbarker, Dime Magazine, Decider, Awful Announcing and The Week. He is also a member of his high school's 4th period gym class floor hockey champions.